I have recently done a series of presentations examining what CIOs need to do to help their organisations respond to the global down turn in the economy. These events have made me look at virtualisation with a new set of eyes. I now believe that it does indeed have a lot of merit. At the outset I saw that virtualisation is an obvious way that a business can get more use from its existing IT assets. Clearly, if you partition a current server to a number of virtual servers that all run on this one physical device, then this will increase the utilisation of the server. Research shows that many existing servers are seldom running near full capacity. Therefore, it would appear that there is lots of opportunity for virtualisation. Moreover, such consolidation would allow an organisation to retire a number of servers which would help reduce expenditure on hardware maintenance and would, probably, simplify the system's administration task.
A technology refresh
Nevertheless, as I found out during the seminars, it is not quite as easy as that. All three suppliers, to their credit, stressed that virtualisation probably requires a technology refresh if it is to be effective. As such, if the existing equipment is still functional then the cost savings argument, while strong, is going to be something that comes more in to play when that equipment comes up for renewal. Mind you virtualisation could probably enable just one new server to replace a number of existing devices. Moreover, such retired devices could still play a useful role as backup devices in business continuity plans. Therefore, virtualisation may also have merit even if a number of those existing devices have not been fully depreciated.
However, what really won me over to the cause of virtualisation was the operational flexibility that it afforded. Any analysis of the global economy right now highlights the unpredictable turbulence under which business is currently operating. In October 2007 the Straits Times Index (STI) in Singapore rose to a record high of 3875.77. Yet by the end of October this year it had sunk to 1794.20, which is a drop of nearly 54 per cent from this peak. Mind you, such is the economic volatility right now, I have no idea what the STI will look like by the time you read this article. Will the election of Barack Obama generate a new sense of hope that will help galvanise the markets around the world?
There is one thing about which I am certain. For CIOs, such turbulence requires significant flexibility in their IT infrastructure. There is a need to reassign things quickly to deal with rapidly changing circumstances. In the traditional IT architecture such dynamic adaptability is limited. However, it is clear that this is not the case with a more virtualised environment. Virtualisation enables redundant capacity to be quickly allocated to a new need. Take, for example, the trials and tribulations of end of the month reporting. For a few days each month the servers supporting the Finance Department could be supplied with additional resources to cope.
This flexibility can also come in handy elsewhere in IT. The Conference Board research shows that CEOs identify their number one challenge as 'excellence in execution'. In other words they recognise that in the fast paced business world of today, it is vital that the companies do it right first time. There is no margin for error. However, what happens if there is any failure in the IT environment? Typically, this would mean that some applications or business units would be off the air. Many affected staff would be unable to do their work. In a virtualised world, though, things are decidedly different. The virtualised environment could quickly be assigned to another working physical server. The business users would still be able to do their work while the incapacitated server was being fixed.
It is perhaps then not surprising that 72 per cent of respondents to a recent IDG Research Services study reported they were currently investing in server virtualisation. However, the same study highlighted that this was not the only area where CIOs were utilising the virtualisation concept. In particular two other areas stood out in the same study. Forty-one per cent of respondents were investing in storage virtualisation and a similar number were committed to desktop virtualisation.
While Storage Area Networks (SANs) have assisted with the centralisation of storage, virtualisation enables files to be stored across SANs. This is particularly useful for ever expanding files like databases or e-mail repositories where there is a need to add extra capacity when file size limits are reached. As with server virtualisation this flexibility in a storage environment provides people like systems and database administrators with the ability to handle capacity management issues without needing to bring down the system.
However, perhaps the hottest aspect of virtualisation right now is its application in the desktop arena. In such scenarios, users no longer have an individual machine. Instead their desktop is a partition on a much larger machine. The desktop is the bane of many a CIO's life. It needs constant updating which is extremely expensive in terms of both time and money. Then there is the never ending stream of support requests from performance issues, to viruses, to lost or stolen laptops to the need to provision new users. Many CIOs recognise that the systems management tasks of the desktop would be greatly simplified if all they had to do was to allocate a space on a large machine that a user could access from their desk, their home or on the road. It is unlikely that such machines would be lost or stolen, back-ups need only embrace one device, it would be much easier to enforce security disciplines and software updates would now be confined to a few central servers rather than a multitude of dispersed devices.
The great irony
The great irony of desktop virtualisation is that it almost represents a complete circle in IT architecture. When the mainframe was king, users were given computing sessions on it. Sophisticated polling between the mainframe and the terminal established access and dialogue. The way desktop virtualisation operates has many similarities to this approach. In other words desktop virtualisation is a modern form of the virtual machines that IBM developed in the 1960's. Therefore an argument could indeed be made that all it represents is the rebirth of functionality that has been with us for years. Yet if it works, and if it brings value, why not look for new uses for proven functionality? We may have been there and done that in the past, but there is still a lot more to do in the future.
Peter Hind is a consultant with many years of experience in the IT industry.
Join the CIO New Zealand group on LinkedIn. The group is open to CIOs, IT Directors, COOs, CTOs and senior IT managers.